The Pleasures and Perils of Renovating a Historic Home—Asbestos, ‘Historically Accurate Nails,’ and All

by Garcia Chris
23 minutes read
The Pleasures and Perils of Renovating a Historic Home—Asbestos, ‘Historically Accurate Nails,’ and All

Casey Kaplan and Amanda Russell had always been fans of older homes. Naturally, their first property purchase was a three-bedroom Craftsman built in 1911. But, three kids later, the couple needed more space.

Enter the Fenton House.

Built in 1892, this Queen Anne-style Victorian in Portland, OR, has a Wikipedia page and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

The couple had passed by this house many times, stopping to admire the wraparound veranda, the second-floor porches, and the original wainscoting and intricate trim.

The Kaplan-Russell family was captivated by Fenton House in Portland, OR.

(Casey Kaplan)

“We always felt it would be a neat house to have,” Kaplan recalls.

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The homeowner died about the same time they began home shopping, so they went to the estate sale to see if the family was going to sell the house. The couple were able to purchase the run-down house as is for the hefty sum of $900,000.

“We impressed upon the sellers that we were a neighborhood family, and we’d long admired the home,” says Kaplan. “We knew it was special, and we told them we wanted to preserve it.”

That’s how the Kaplan-Russell family became the proud owners of a 131-year-old, four-bedroom, three-bath Victorian that needed a lot of work.

What it’s like to renovate a historic house

Historic homes are a rarity, with only 0.25% of U.S. real estate listings advertising “historic home” in their description. These properties tend to be more prevalent in the Northeast (0.31%), Midwest (0.31%), and South (0.26%).

While some homebuyers like Kaplan and Russell see a historic status as a positive, others might shy away from these older builds because they might require expensive repairs and renovations to keep them functional for a modern-day family. And while renovating any house is an arduous process, renovating a historic house comes with unique challenges and stringent regulations on what may be changed.

“These homes are usually governed by a local group of owners, historians, and bureaucrats who have some legal say as to how you go about restoring the property,” says Tyler Drew, a real estate developer in California. “For instance, if your home has an exterior of cedar shingles, you can’t just slap composite siding on it and call it a day. Some historical groups go so far as to require you to use historically accurate nails.”

According to Ken Ray of the City of Portland Bureau of Development Services, the city has rules regarding the exterior of historic homes.

“It is incumbent upon every home purchaser to conduct due diligence in researching the rules and regulations that may apply to a property,” he adds. “With regard to interior improvements to a historic building, the State Historic Preservation Office may have further rules or guidelines.”

As it turns out, the Fenton House didn’t need much exterior work because the previous owner had completed a three-year renovation of the exterior, replacing its chipped blue paint with a pristine white.

The house with its original blue and black colors.

(Diane S. Hardiman/Oregon State Historic Preservation Office)

Kaplan and Russell focused on the home’s interiors, which face looser preservation restrictions. They had budgeted about $250,000 for the entire remodel, with most of the funds going toward the kitchen and upstairs bathroom.

But they quickly encountered some unwelcome realities.

The first was asbestos. The kitchen’s original vinyl floor was about 90 years old, put in at a time when the toxic material was used in adhesives. They also found asbestos in the insulation of the heating pipes in the basement. Removal required specialists in hazmat gear—an expensive process that’s all too common in historic buildings.

The new kitchen is spacious and airy, with a fresh color palette.

(Casey Kaplan)

“With historic homes comes historic building material,” explains Drew. “That usually means the house is full of lead paint and asbestos. All of these things must be torn out, remediated, or contained. Original iron piping also needs to be removed because it usually contains lead-soldered connections.”

Electrical is another common problem with historic homes.

“These old homes often have knob-and-tube wiring throughout, which is essentially just bare wire wrapped in cloth and put behind the walls,” Drew adds. “The cloth usually disintegrates, leading to your walls being filled with bare, hot wire. Simply turning on the electricity can burn down the house. Usually, the entire electrical system requires an update.”

The Fenton House’s electrical problems were minimal, but the couple discovered some interesting things in the walls of the bathroom: 1960s collage-style wallpaper made up of magazine ads.

They considered keeping this unique wallpaper, but it was in poor condition and “a little racy,” Kaplan says with a laugh.

The collage-style wallpaper found in the bathroom walls

(Casey Kaplan)

The couple also found an old Anheuser-Busch beer bottle behind a wall in the kitchen. The circa 1910 bottle had a stork on the label, which Kaplan learned was marketed to nursing mothers as a health tonic.

A beer bottle found behind a wall in the kitchen

(Casey Kaplan)

Such finds are one of the fun parts of renovating a historic building.

“Insulation in historical homes is often made up of old newspaper and whatever can be crammed inside the wall that was available at the time,” says Drew. “Occasionally, the odd renovator will find insulation made out of rare baseball cards or comics. A few Action Comics #1 have been found this way, which would easily pay for the entire home and renovation costs.”

Old homes, odd layouts

Although Kaplan and Russell had taken a risk purchasing the Fenton House as is, their home inspection revealed good news: The brick foundation was in solid shape, the furnace was old but working, and the water heater was almost new.

The kitchen was the trickiest space to upgrade. The space was small and oddly shaped, with an adjacent bathroom and chimney jutting into the room. It would be impossible to put in the long kitchen counter the couple wanted for their family.

“There looked like there had been three remodels done, one right on top of another,” adds Kaplan.

The kitchen was small and dark.

(Casey Kaplan)

The designer they hired decided that the chimney had to go, as there was no other way to carve out enough space for a modern kitchen.

“They took it apart brick by brick,” says Kaplan. “It was quite impressive to watch.”

To make room for new kitchen countertops, the shower was removed from the bathroom that was jutting into the kitchen.

Casey Kaplan watches the worker staining the kitchen island.

(Casey Kaplan)

The Fenton House also suffered from another problem common in old homes: crooked floors.

Kaplan learned that the typical fix for a tilted subfloor involved ripping out and releveling the original pier and beams that went all the way to the basement. Luckily, their contractor had a better solution: spreading a self-leveling material across the floor and letting gravity work its magic.

Even so, the floor remains slightly crooked to this day, Kaplan explains. “The kitchen island has four slightly different leg lengths to make it level.”

The bathroom was small and dark.

(Casey Kaplan)

Upstairs, the bathroom needed an overhaul, while the bedrooms needed plaster and woodwork repair.

“The costs kept piling up,” Kaplan recalls.

The renovated bathroom is light and spacious with shiplap and tile that looks like the original.

(Casey Kaplan)

The upstairs bedrooms were dark and dreary before the renovation.

(Casey Kaplan)

Now, they are light and airy, with vintage features like the old fireplaces.

(Casey Kaplan)

Staying true to a home’s history

The home was originally built for William Fenton, a Portland lawyer and judge. Fenton Hall, which housed the University of Oregon Law School, was named after him.

Fenton House was built for a local attorney and his family

(Casey Kaplan)

Armed with two binders on the Fenton family, Kaplan and Russell were determined to preserve the home’s classic Victorian architecture, while making minor cosmetic upgrades like paint colors that would fit more with their style.

The original owners of the Fenton House

(Casey Kaplan)

“I was in awe at the details,” Kaplan says of the home. “The incredibly high ceilings, the old wood floors, the elaborate banisters. There were these grand pocket doors, original trim everywhere, beautiful old light fixtures. There were so many awesome elements.”

Original details such as the grand pocket doors and the stained-glass windows sold the Kaplan-Russell family on the house.

(Casey Kaplan)

The carved banister and leaded-glass windows

(Casey Kaplan)

As the timeline dragged on and bills piled up, Kaplan and Russell kept telling themselves that every dollar they put into this historic house was a good investment.

“This is a one-of-a-kind home,” he says. “The character and charm were unmatched.”

To keep the project on schedule, they dispatched with their rental and Kaplan basically moved into the construction zone, using it as his home office.

“Being present and keeping on top of the tasks helps move things along,” he says.

Finally, in December 2023, the Kaplan-Russell family made Fenton House their permanent residence. And even though the home had been modernized, certain old quirks remain.

“You will hear weird things throughout all hours of the day in a historic house,” warns Drew. “They are probably not the ghosts of former residents, but rather old piping expanding and contracting as the house warms and cools. You will never get the house to stop making these noises, so don’t bother to try.”

Nonetheless, “It was exciting to move in,” says Kaplan, “though the house still needed some work. To be honest, I don’t think the work will ever completely end.”

The family finally moved in in December 2023.

(Casey Kaplan)

The pair can’t imagine living anywhere else.

(Casey Kaplan)

Case in point: Soon after they moved in, the furnace blew, requiring a $5,000 replacement. They also added an HVAC system in the attic at a cost of $14,000.

Even so, Kaplan says, the house is “drafty in winter, hot in summer.” Replacing the original single-pane windows would help, but it would cost approximately $70,000.

“These homes are not built for modern HVAC systems,” explains Drew. “Modern buildings have space in between the studs to safely run ducting. Historic homes usually do not have any such luxury. Renovating an HVAC unit into one can be costly. And some historic societies that govern them won’t allow mini split systems to be installed.”

Another issue with historic homes is that they can come with insurance headaches not present with a newer home.

“Special insurance is often required for these homes as they simply cannot be replaced,” says Drew. “These insurance requirements can be fairly onerous and expensive. They may even go so far as to require a fire suppression system to be installed, which is expensive. And getting a proper appraisal can be a nightmare, as finding comparable sales is sometimes impossible.”

Kaplan jokes on Instagram that the house is a “money pit,” but in reality, he believes the Fenton House offers intangible benefits.

“People stop every day and take pictures of our home and ask questions,” he says. “I enjoy talking to them about its history. There is no other place we can see ourselves living.”

Curious to see more historic homes for sale that could be yours? Check out the five cities below that have the most listings mentioning “historic home” in their descriptions.

Mobile, AL

Share of listings mentioning ‘historic home’: 1.1%
55 N Monterey St for sale for $875,000

Historic home for sale in Mobile, AL


Athens, GA

Share of listings mentioning ‘historic home’: 1.1%
Home at 124 Cherokee Ave for sale for $799,000

Historic home for sale in Athens, GA


Poughkeepsie, NY

Share of listings mentioning ‘historic home’: 0.9%
Home for sale at 125-127 Bedell Rd for $2,500,000

Historic home for sale in Poughkeepsie, NY


Wilmington, NC

Share of listings mentioning ‘historic home’: 0.8%
Home at 149 Northern Blvd for sale for $425,000

Historic home for sale in Wilmington, NC


Portland, ME

Share of listings mentioning ‘historic home’: 0.8%
Home at 14 Dow St for sale for $799,000

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Historic home for sale in Portland, ME


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